PROFILE: COVER PHOTOGRAPHER
Photographer Michele Zousmer visits with an elderly Romanian woman preparing for the harsh winter while foraging for mushrooms.
Changing the Perception of Women Prisoners
By Daniela Cohen
Published September 2023
Michele Zousmer learned how to use the camera by photographing her son’s professional basketball games, leading her to become the school’s sports photographer. After her son left for college, she participated in a photo tour to Peru with a photojournalist. There, she developed a love for using her camera to tell a story. When Zousmer returned home to San Diego, she decided to volunteer her time photographing for organizations close to her heart.
While photographing at a foster care agency, she met Sheriff Bill Gore, who told her about a new reentry program at the Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility. He asked her to help change the perception of the female convicts through her lens. Although she had no idea what she would encounter, Zousmer was always ready to embrace a creative challenge and immediately agreed.
Aware of the stigma the women in the re-entry program faced because of incarceration as well as the shame they felt, she aimed to capture “their vulnerability, their spirit, their beauty.” She said people who saw the images were surprised, commenting, “They look just like you and me.”
Over the four years she spent photographing at Las Colinas, Zousmer built many relationships with the women she met. She discovered that, before entering Las Colinas, these women been through very difficult experiences without much support. “All of them were broken in some way,” Zousmer said. “Some as young people and some as teens and it just continued into their adult life.” Her own experience of being a young widow helped Zousmer empathize with the women’s pain and the unexpected turns life could take.
“I really was so amazed that they let me in, and they trusted me because they said I showed up, I was there,” she said. “Sometimes I’d come two or three times a week. I would go at night, and it was like we were having a pajama party.”
On one of these visits, Zousmer was interrogated by the deputy sheriff about photographing in the prison, and her cameras were locked up. During this experience, she felt firsthand the treatment the women experienced on a daily basis. “They just made me feel like nothing. It was the most demeaning thing,” she said. After reading April Harris’s article in this issue of ZEKE magazine, Zousmer realized nothing has changed.
Through her photographs at Las Colinas, Zousmer aims to raise awareness of the punitive nature of the women’s prison system. “I feel very strongly about restorative justice,” she said. “I believe many of these women didn’t belong in jail at all. I feel that these women deserve a second chance.” In her view, the Future Achievers In Reentry program at Las Colinas is an important avenue towards that.